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The Sweet Singer of Tuckahoe

My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance

edited by Gerald Early
Anchor Books, 618 pp., $14.95 (paper)

1.

Countee Cullen was the Edna St. Vincent Millay of the Harlem Renaissance. Virtually every poem of this romanticized writer was read by blacks as well as whites as a gesture, or even a “monument to the New Negro movement.” Before the publication of his first collection, Color, in 1925, when he was twenty-two, Cullen was already being celebrated, partly perhaps because he demonstrated that a black could turn out high-minded heroic couplets. Dead at forty-two, he has also come down to us in numerous anthologies of American poetry as something of a boy wonder who was silenced before his time, like the Romantic poets who were his models.

Cullen lacks an adequate biography,1 and this may account for the very general picture we have of him. He is never overlooked in books about the Harlem Renaissance, and yet among its major personalities he is the most recessive, harder to comprehend even than Langston Hughes. He is a figure of “sheer inscrutability,” as Gerald Early puts it in his lengthy introduction to My Soul’s High Song. Nothing, Early warns us, can be known with any certainty about Cullen’s formative years. Apparently no detail was too small to be ashamed of. Before he was famous, Cullen gave his birthplace as Louisville, Kentucky, but then switched it to New York City. Early tells us that there are even conflicting documents concerning Cullen’s height; he got taller as an adult, growing from five foot two inches to five foot ten inches as time went by.

The liveliest biographical sketch of Cullen is in David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue,2 according to which he was born Countee Leroy Porter in Louisville in 1903. After his father “disappeared,” his mother took him to Baltimore to live with his paternal grandmother, who later moved with him to New York, where she ran a home for abandoned children. When she died, he went to live with the childless Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, though it is unclear exactly when that was—perhaps 1918—and whether the Cullens ever formally adopted him.

Countee’s gratitude to his foster parents never ceased to be a part of his adult personality,” Arna Bontemps observes in his memoir of the Harlem Renaissance.3 “His poetry reflected it, even when he became mildly critical of the elder Cullen’s fundamentalism. Not even sad or tragic themes deprived his lyrics of thankful overtones.” Although Reverend Cullen’s concentration on the prodigy in his care caused some resentment among his relations—Lewis passes on the gossip of the day that described Reverend Cullen, an NAACP activist, as a “menace” to choir boys and “oddly fond” of his wife’s cosmetics—Cullen more than repaid his adoptive father’s emotional investment, accompanying the Reverend Cullen on holidays abroad in the years between 1926 and 1938, while Mrs. Cullen stayed home. He was a model student and never got over the habit of winning prizes and approval, shining at DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU in 1925, and taking a master’s degree at Harvard in 1926.

If Langston Hughes was an escapee from the Talented Tenth, then Countee Cullen was among its most satisfying creations. His willingness to be defined by its expectations probably accounts for his marriage to Du Bois’s daughter, Harlem’s brightest social event in 1928. The courtship had been full of sonnets and fantasy. Shortly after the ceremony, Cullen sailed to Paris on a Guggenheim. When the bride arrived a few months later the marriage fell apart immediately, and Du Bois’s dynastic ambitions were disappointed. Du Bois’s daughter stormed off with the phonograph key and sued for divorce.

Lewis advances the theory that the problem in the marriage had more to do with Cullen’s affection for his best man, Harold Jackman, a high school chum who became a gleaming presence at Harlem parties, and whom, for his good looks, Winold Reiss made into an icon of light-skinned New Negro charm in portraits such as “The College Lad.” In Lewis’s view, Cullen’s ambiguous sexuality, along with what he considered his shameful origins, and his “pain as an Afro-American,” confirmed in Cullen a “singular corroding suspicion of a life cursed from birth, of something gone wrong from the day of creation.” (Early finds “no proof” of Cullen’s homosexuality, though some may find the lavishness of innuendo in Carl Van Vechten’s scrapbooks in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale worth a raised eyebrow. Jackman, who inherited most of Cullen’s papers and established a collection in his friend’s name in the Amstead Research Center at Dillard University in New Orleans, was said to have kept a journal of nervous-making intimacy but evidently it has disappeared.)

Still, Du Bois’s advice to Cullen to “arrange to be a friend companion and coworker with your wife and let love show itself chiefly there” was eventually heeded, and when Cullen remarried in 1940, he found with his second wife, also a divorcée, a ready-made family, a quiet home in Tuckahoe, New York, and an excellent partner at cards. “How I would love a good game of bridge now.” She also may have spared him an all-out Ackerley-like transference of affection from mankind to pets, though his intensely cherished cat was the inspiration for the children’s books that he wrote toward the end of his life.4

Unlike other writers of the Harlem Renaissance who lost their patronage during the Depression, when public enthusiasm for black artists vanished, Cullen was not so vulnerable because of his superior education. He had always held himself aloof from a sponsorship that could be seen as condescending, and in particular from Carl Van Vechten’s conviction that his support was enough to part the waters for deserving black writers. “They really are too nice for white people,” Cullen wrote of one couple in 1939. “And isn’t that a mean provincial thing to say? No, I guess not. Any time an American Negro says something mean about white people he has justice on his side.” He declined invitations to teach at black colleges in the South, probably because he did not want to live under Jim Crow. If he did not exactly have choices, he had, at least, the ways of the Talented Tenth to fall back on, and in 1934, he became a junior high school French teacher in the New York City school system, where he remained until his death in 1946.

2.

Color had been followed by Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), and The Medea and Some Poems (1935), but On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, chosen by Cullen himself and published in 1947, after his death, contained only a half dozen unpublished poems among nearly one hundred poems of varying length. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he ceased to be prolific because the lyric mode suited only his youthful preoccupations, or he had come to realize that the ability of art to affect human events was an illusion:

Shall I go all my bright days singing,
(A little pallid, a trifle wan)
The failing note still vainly clinging
To the throat of the stricken swan?

Shall I never feel and meet the urge
To bugle out beyond my sense
That the fittest song of earth is a dirge,
And only fools trust Providence?

Than this better the reed never turned flute,
Better this than no song,
Better a stony silence, better a mute
Mouth and a cloven tongue.
(“Self Criticism”)

He was also a columnist for Opportunity magazine in 1927, contributing travel essays to it and to The Crisis while abroad in 1928 and 1929, and he wrote a novel, One Way to Heaven, published to ambivalent notices in 1932. In the 1930s he tried to break into show business, cutting up his novel for the stage without success and collaborating with Bontemps on the adaptation for “St. Louis Woman.” But his professional life had long settled into devotion to the young, writing for them and teaching. This seems appropriate, because his work gives off a strong whiff of the classroom, and because he himself sprang from school poetry contests into print.

My Soul’s High Song is an expanded edition of On These I Stand, including many poems Cullen left out, and several very early or late poems that had not been collected when Cullen died. Early’s volume is close to what Cullen had at first intended, since he has added Cullen’s serviceable prose translation of The Medea, in which, in order to indicate where the Greek changes to lyric meter, Cullen gave the chorus the rhythm of Anglican hymns, and Virgil Thomson later set them to music. Early also includes a selection of Cullen’s essays, which helps to give a sense of his working life as a reviewer of the plays and books that were of interest to his black audience at the time, and reprints in full his harmless comedy of Harlem drawingroom manners, One Way to Heaven.

Cullen wanted to be known as a “Poet,” not a Negro poet, but we remember him only because he was black. He survives as an admired cultural figure, one of the most widely published poets of his day, but he is also seen as something of a cautionary tale. Since his death, interest in him has tended to rest in the contradictions of his example, that of a modern black writer attempting to reconcile his identity with the tone and style of a nineteenth-century British poetic tradition, resisting the influence of his contemporaries, white or black, Imagist or jazz poet. He made his aesthetic choice early on, and never looked back, so that finding the difference between a poem of his bright promise—

With two white roses on her breasts, White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests; Lord Death has found her sweet.

Her mother pawned her wedding ring To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing To see herself tonight.
(“A Brown Girl Dead”)

—and a poem of his disillusionment written some two decades later—

O land of mine, O land I love, A Worm gnaws at your root;
Unless that Worm you scotch, remove, Peace will not be the fruit.

Let Hirohito be dethroned, With Hitler gibbet-high
Let Mussolini, bloody, stoned, Be spaded deep in lye…
(“Apostrophe to the Land”)

—can only fascinate the specialist. Someone had to do it, and Alan Shucard’s study, Countee Cullen,5 offers the most patient scrutiny to date of Cullen’s themes, the antithetical cast of his mind, the changing shades and shifts of emphasis in his contemplation from volume to volume of love won, love lost; the threat of love to the peace of mind (“Your love to me was like an unread book”); his struggle to hold to a Christian view of the world (“The meek are promised much in a book I know / But one grows weary turning cheek to blow”); his challenges to authority, i.e., God, “the Cryptic One”; the temptations of his pagan impulses; the necessity to cool his primitive urges as a black in order to get along in the white world; and his Edenic conception of Africa:

  1. 1

    Blanche Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance (Dodd, Mead, 1966); and Margaret Perry, A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen: 1903–1946 (Greenwood, 1971), for example.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1979. See also Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States (University of Illinois Press, 1973).

  3. 3

    The Harlem Renaissance,” The Saturday Review of Literature (March 1947). See also Arna Bontemps, editor, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (Dodd, Mead, 1972), and Owen Dodson, “Countee Cullen” Phylon, Vol. VII, No. 1 (1947).

  4. 4

    Christopher Cat and Countee Cullen, The Lost Zoo (Harper and Brothers, 1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (Harper and Brothers, 1942). Two other of his children’s books remain unpublished.

  5. 5

    Twayne, 1984. See also Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Southern Illinois University Press, 1971); Bertram L. Woodruff, “The Poetic Philosophy of Countee Cullen,” Phylon (Third Quarter, 1940); Harvey Curtis Webster, “A Difficult Career,” Poetry, Vol. LXX (July 1947); Robert A. Smith, “The Poetry of Countee Cullen,” Phylon XI (Third Quarter, 1950); and Arthur P. Davis, “The Alien-and-Exile Theme in Countee Cullen’s Racial Poems,” Phylon (Fourth Quarter, 1953).

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